By Chris Lang
Do not go out and try to buy a face mask after reading this. Do stay at home and make one. (Here’s the Masks4All website, with lots more information, including how to make a mask.) Wear your mask if you need to go out, to buy food, for example, or to travel to work if you cannot work from home.
While the Coronavirus has spread globally, the World Health Organisation has been telling us since early February that, “If you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with suspected 2019-nCoV infection.”
An information video on the WHO website asks “Can masks protect against new Coronavirus infection?”
“Medical masks like this one cannot protect against the new Coronavirus when used alone,” Christine Francis, the WHO’s consultant for Infection Prevention Control, answers.
“When you wear them, you must combine with hand hygiene and other preventive measures. WHO only recommends the use of masks in specific cases. If you have cough, fever and difficulty breathing, you should wear a mask and seek medical care. If you do not have these symptoms you do not have to wear masks because there is no evidence that they protect people who are not sick.”
Telling people not to wear masks backfired. Badly
On 17 March 2020, Dr. Zeynep Tufekci wrote an article in the New York Times under the headline, “Why Telling People They Don’t Need Masks Backfired”. Tufekci is an associate professor of information science at the University of North Carolina who specialises in the social effects of technology.
Tufekci argues that,
the top-down conversation around masks has become a case study in how not to communicate with the public, especially now that the traditional gatekeepers like media and health authorities have much less control. The message became counterproductive and may have encouraged even more hoarding because it seemed as though authorities were shaping the message around managing the scarcity rather than confronting the reality of the situation.
Tufekci puts forward seven arguments for wearing masks:
1. The arguments, often put forward simultaneously, that face masks aren’t necessary to protect the general public, and that people should not buy face masks because health care workers need them are confusing. Surely, if masks protect health care workers they will also protect others?
2. People might not fit their masks properly, but putting a mask on is hardly rocket science, is it? Before the Coronavirus, I didn’t wash my hands for at least 20 seconds, several times a day. I do now.
3. Masks may not work perfectly. But they can help to reduce transmissions rates – along with social distancing and frequent hand-washing.
4. Coronavirus can be transmitted by people who do not have any symptoms. People with mild cases are still infectious. Tufekci points out that, “If the public is told that only the sick people are to wear masks, then those who do wear them will be stigmatized and people may well avoid wearing them if it screams ‘I’m sick.’” The best way to avoid this is if everyone wears a mask.
5. Countries like Hong Kong and Taiwan reacted quickly with social distancing and mask wearing. Hong Kong officials recommend universal mask wearing.
6. Masks signal that it’s not business as usual. We need to change. Wearing a mask is an act of solidarity with fellow citizens.
7. Tufecki notes a saying from the Soviet Union: If there’s a queue, join it, then find out what the queue is for. People in the Soviet Union knew that shortages were likely, and that the authorities lied about them. So they hoarded.
There is a mask shortage and health care workers need them most. So what should the authorities have said? “The full painful truth,” Tufecki writes. And the truth is that,
Despite warnings from experts for decades, especially after the near mishappeneds of SARS, we still weren’t prepared for this pandemic, and we did not ramp up domestic production when we could, and now there’s a mask shortage — and that’s disastrous because our front line health care workers deserve the best protection. Besides, if they fall ill, we will all be doomed.
The evidence for face masks
On 28 March 2020, Jeremy Howard of the University of San Francisco wrote an article in the Washington Post about DIY masks, and how we should all wear them in public. “It’s time to make masks a key part of our fight to contain, then defeat, this pandemic,” Howard writes. “Masks effective at ‘flattening the curve’ can be made at home with nothing more than a T-shirt and a pair of scissors.”
Howard quotes George Gao, director general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, who said, “Many people have asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others.”
Howard’s research institute fast.ai lists 34 scientific papers that back up the argument that masks can reduce virus transmission. They didn’t find a single paper showing “clear evidence that they cannot”.
India’s brutal lockdown
Clearly, face masks will not solve everything, everywhere. On 24 March 2020, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a brutal lockdown with four hours notice, leaving migrant workers with no choice other than to try to get back to their villages. Daily wage labourers have been forced to walk huge distances, some carrying their children.
In India, more than 80% of the labour force works in the informal sector, without contracts, health care, or pensions. A couple of days off work would leave them without money. Three weeks without pay would be impossible to survive.
Shalmali Guttal, Executive Director of Focus on the Global South, notes that the lockdown is a disaster for the poor: “Without safe shelter, transportation and adequate food, millions of daily wage and migrant workers, and their families have been exposed to tremendous risks.”
Densely crowded slums, where people have little access to clean water, let alone disinfectant, or the possibility of testing for the virus or tracking it, mean that the virus could spread like wildfire. A universal basic income would not solve everything, but it would mean that the poorest at least have enough money to buy food to eat.
Universal basic income in the USA and the UK
A universal basic income would also help in the USA. Karl Widerquist has been studying UBI for more than 20 years. He writes that opposition to it boils down to two main arguments: everyone should work; and we cannot afford it.
Whether these are valid or invalid arguments against UBI in normal times has been debated for decades, but they simply don’t apply to the emergency UBI during the current situation.
Right now, we don’t need everyone to work. In fact, we need a lot of people to stop working. We don’t want food service and healthcare workers who might be sick to go into work and infect people because they can’t afford to stay home. In an economy where millions of people live paycheck-to-paycheck, an emergency UBI would give non-essential employees the opportunity to stay home during the coronavirus outbreak, slowing the spread of the disease.
In the UK, a letter signed by dozens of politicians, academics, and concerned citizens, argues that the UK needs a universal basic income:
While we are delighted that the Chancellor has recognised the urgent need to use fiscal measures to prop up economic demand, we urge him to consider a Universal Basic Income, alongside other measures like wage subsidies, to guarantee security for everyone during this crisis. This is particularly the case for the millions not in salaried employment – those who are self-employed, unemployed, on zero-hours contracts, in the gig economy and those caring for loved ones.
But a petition, signed by over 100,000 people, was rejected by the UK government:
The Government does not believe a Universal Basic Income is the best method to tackle the extraordinary situation resulting from COVID-19, because it does not target help to those who need it most.
This makes little sense. As the letter points out, the problem with attempts to “target help to those who need it most” is that it will inevitably miss some people:
What, for example, of those already made redundant over recent days? Will Universal Credit suffice, assuming it can even be processed fast enough? What of gig economy workers and those on zero-hours contracts who currently have no work to do? And what of small-business owners or sole traders whose livelihoods have either collapsed or will do so imminently? What of all the unpaid carers with extra burdens of looking after children out of school, and elders and disabled people facing social care shortages?